The best way to overcome fear is to face it head on.
That was the essential message of the fourth installment of the Infinite Mindcare Talk Series on Oct. 21 at Books & Books.
The monthly talk series, which is free and open to the public, is conducted by Infinite Mindcare, a multi-specialty counselling service located in Centennial Towers. The talks are given by Sutton Burke, the clinical director and psychotherapist at Infinite Mindcare, and psychologist Lili Wagner.
The themes of the talks change from month to month and with the spookiness of Halloween just around the corner, Infinite Mindcare decided to talk about fear, one of the most common and complex human reactions.
Although fear can be rational and can come as a response to real threats, often it is irrational, like the fear of the unknown or the fear of uncertainty, Burke said.
Fear can lead to anxiety, stress and even addiction, and it can have a profound effect on lives.
“Fear can stop us from living the life we want for ourselves,” she said. People can fear many different things: death, other people, public places, heights, insects, reptiles, flying, public speaking, germs or even their own thoughts. When people get wrapped up in fears, whether in response to real or imagined threats, they aren’t being mindful of other important things.
“Fear holds us back,” she said. Wagner said fears are stored in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for such things as survival instincts and memory. As such, memories of fear are stored there.
“That’s why when we’re younger, if we have experiences of a fear of something that happened, it gets stuck there,” she said, adding the amygdala is also responsible for post traumatic stress disorder symptoms in adults.
Fear, if not dealt with, can cause high stress in humans, Wagner said. “It’s like you are practically on a regular basis running away from a lion.”
In addition to coming from life experiences, fear of certain things can get passed down genetically, Wagner said, and it can be triggered by sights, sounds and even smells.
“The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive,” Wagner said, quoting Seneca, as an approach to overcoming fears.
Burke said people’s thoughts create emotions and their emotions in turn dictate their behaviour. Thoughts of fear can thus dictate behaviour in ways that hinder our lives.
Infinite Mindcare takes an “exposure therapy” approach in counseling clients on how to overcome fear.
“The best thing you can do is to expose yourself to them,” Burke said. “The worst thing you can do is avoid them. This is the basis of the therapy.”
The first step is to have people question what they think are facts about their fear. Many times, it turns out those facts are erroneous.
“This is a very direct approach,” she said. “We want everyone to become their own behaviour therapist and question themselves.”
After going over the facts, incremental steps of exposure to the source of the fear are incorporated into the therapy. For example, if a person is afraid of snakes, the therapy might start with looking at photographs of snakes over and over again.
“You start to realise you’re not going to get bitten by the snakes in the pictures,” she said. The next step could be introducing a toy snake and having the client handle it over and over again.
“Then maybe we show them videos of snakes and then maybe we go outside and look for a snake,” she said.
In order to face their fears, people should analyse them in a process called “fear setting,” Wagner said.
“First you ask yourself, ‘What is the absolute worst thing that could happen?’” she said, adding that people should write down the 10 worst things that could happen as a result of their fear.
They then should write down 10 things they can do to prevent the worst thing from happening, and then finally, write down 10 things they can do to repair the situation should the worst take place. In addition, those who want to face their fear should write down all the potential benefits of taking the action they are afraid of, and then the probable negative effects of inaction in six months, one year and three years.
By doing this kind of exercise, people can better understand the potential benefits versus costs of action or inaction in response to their fear. In this way, they gain confidence in their decision, knowing that even if the worst thing happens, they can deal with it.
“A lot of fear comes from a lack of confidence,” Wagner said.
Burke said that once a person starts down the path of courage in facing a fear, it can have a “trickle down” effect in other areas of their life. In addition, people who didn’t think they had courage will learn they did.
“People don’t always acknowledge their own courage or accomplishments, but it’s an important way of building confidence.”
Sometimes, people have to have the courage to “jump with both feet” in facing a fear, Wagner said.
“That which you’re most uncomfortable with is exactly what you should be doing more of, within reason,” Wagner said. “You don’t put your head in the lion’s mouth if you’re afraid of lions.”
The next Infinite Mindcare Talk Series event will take place at Books & Book on Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. and will have the theme “The Attitude of Gratitude: Mindfulness & Much More.”